Liberate the Education System

As regulars of this blog know, I advocate the liberation of education from the clutches of the government. That is not going to happen in a hurry but that means that more people have to become aware of the disaster that the Indian education system is. I wrote piece on the topic for NitiCentral recently. Here it is, for the record.

Liberate the Education System
Sept 30th, 2013

I am visiting Leuven, a little university town, population 100,000, about 25 kms east of Brussels. It has two main claims to fame. It is home to the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, established in 1425, the oldest Catholic university still in existence. It is also home to Anheuser-Busch InBev, the largest brewer group in the world.

Today afternoon, September 29th, I will be speaking to a group interested in India – mostly Indian students and professionals in Leuven. My topic, as always, will be about India’s economic development or more precisely the elusive goal of India’s development. I myself have been a student most of my life: first in India and then as a foreign student in the US. Thus when it comes to the matter of India’s education I speak from personal experience.

Though it does not provoke much thought, the matter of why Indians are forced to go abroad in very large numbers to study should be of serious concern. The numbers are startling. An estimated 270,000 students – over a quarter of a million – Indians study abroad at an annual cost of US$ 8 billion which is more than twice the Union budget’s allocation for higher education in India.

Every year around 38,000 new Indian students enroll in universities abroad, mostly (32,000) for master’s degrees. This shows that there are people willing to pay for higher education and are qualified to study further but that they lack the opportunity to do so in India. India’s education system is one of the saddest stories that can be told about India.

It is hard not to compare India with other countries. A liberal estimate of foreign students studying in India is 9,000. Compare that to Singapore. Singapore’s population of 4 million is actually less than the rounding error in India’s population of 1,200 million. Yet Singapore attracts 100,000 foreign students, about 10,000 from India itself. Singapore earns around US$2.5 billion a year from foreign students.

Australia earns US$17 billion a year serving 620,000 foreign students, of which 100,000 are Indian. Annually Canada earns US$ 7 billion from 180,000 foreign students, of which 10,000 are Indians. Once again, the populations of these countries – Singapore, Canada, Australia – are mere rounding errors compared to India’s population. Yet, the number of foreign students in India is just a rounding error compared to foreign students in those tiny countries.

One last set of numbers. The US is a large rich country. It earns US$ 20 billion a year from 200,000 foreign students, half of which are from India. Which brings us to those insistent questions: why are Indians studying abroad at enormous costs? Why is India’s education system unable to educate qualified Indian students?

Indians are not systematically or congenitally any more stupid than other people. Indians do quite well when they have the opportunity. Let me present a telling illustration. I came across a very tiny news item, “Does This Carbon Nanotube Computer Spell the End for Silicon?” published just two days ago.

Engineers have built a basic computer using carbon nanotubes, a success that points to a potentially faster, more efficient alternative to silicon chips.

The achievement is reported in an article on the cover of the journal Nature.

“People have been talking about a new era of carbon nanotube electronics moving beyond silicon,” says Subhasish Mitra, an electrical engineer and computer scientist at Stanford University who co-led the work. “But there have been few demonstrations of complete digital systems using this exciting technology. Here is the proof.”

You will note that half the people mentioned in that article are Indians.

  • Subhasish Mitra, computer scientist at Stanford University
  • Anantha Chandrakasan, at MIT, a world leader in chip research
  • Sankar Basu, a program director at the National Science Foundation
  • Naresh Shanbhag, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and director of SONIC, a consortium of next-generation chip design research
  • Supratik Guha, director of physical sciences for IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center and a world leader in carbon nanotube research

These are highly qualified people, doing research and adding to the wealth abroad instead of their home country. The point is that India not only loses financial capital as a consequence of its poor education system but more seriously that it loses human capital which could have helped India progress.

Every year, tens of thousands of Indians (most of whom have done their basic education at public expense in India) migrate abroad. There they add to the human capital of advanced industrialized nations. This represents an enormous gift from a desperately poor country to rich nations. India cannot afford this kind of transfer but is forced to do so because of its dysfunctional education system.

So why is India’s education system so bad? I claim that the root cause is due to its colonial legacy. The British made the rules that hinder India’s education system. The most damaging rule relates to restricting education to the “not for profit” sector. And the rulers after the British continued with that bad policy.

This is an insidious rule created by the British so that their churches (which are ostensibly “not for profit”) could dominate India’s education and face no competition. This system creates the deracinated and alienated Indians who continue what I call British Raj 2.0.

Post 1947, those who inherited the British Raj found the system left by the British to be very convenient for their own benefit. By controlling the education system under the excuse of making it socially equitable, they were able to control not just the dominant narrative but were able to use the engineered supply shortage of educational opportunities for political gain. They, the politicians and the bureaucracy, dole out the limited supply to various groups as a quid pro quo for votes.

Indians lack the freedom to invest in the creation of schools and colleges. This is just one small but significant aspect of the lack of economic freedom. To start even the most trivially small school, Indians have to seek various permissions from several government authorities. Too often, the only way to get those mandatory permissions is by bribing and making the most blatant misrepresentations.

In my talk today at Leuven I will make the case that India’s development depends on Indians winning comprehensive freedom. More particularly, I will argue that India needs freedom from a rapacious government. This will of course not happen automatically and without a struggle. Freedom can never be taken for granted because freedom has to be won and is never granted. Becoming aware of our lack of freedom is the first step to emancipation. But for that we have to become truly educated – which in our case is difficult because of our poor education system. We have to liberate our education system so that we can liberate ourselves.

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Post Script: Some of the numbers in the piece above are from an infographics published by Forbes India here.

Author: Atanu Dey


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